Findings from a new study highlight the impact of loneliness on the use of primary care

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People suffering from loneliness, particularly women, visit GPs more frequently, new UK-led research published in Health Psychology Review shows.

The researchers from the University of Sheffield undertook a meta-analysis quantifying research on the association of loneliness to primary healthcare use, which yielded 23 eligible studies with 25 effects, involving a pooled total of 113,639 participants. The majority of the studies used large representative population-based samples (n=15) with either middle-aged (six studies) or older adults aged 65 years or older (11 studies).

The findings indicate that people who experience loneliness and feelings of social isolation make a greater number of visits to their physician or GP. Although the average association found was small, it was robust to differences in age, the type of healthcare system, and the format of the loneliness scale used, the study authors said.

However, the associations from studies that used objective measures of primary care use were larger compared with studies in which primary care was self-reported. The effects also increased in magnitude as the proportion of females in the sample increased.

Recent estimates have claimed that around 3.7 million adults in Great Britain feel lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’. As a result, even small reductions in loneliness nationwide could reduce the number of GP visits by tens of thousands every year, as well as ease demand on the NHS, the study authors note.

It is currently unclear whether people suffering from loneliness are making more GP visits because of the negative health effects that have been linked to loneliness, or whether it is because they simply want someone to talk to as a way to combat feeling lonely. Research is currently being undertaken by the study’s lead author Dr Fuschia Sirois, Reader in Health and Social Psychology at the University of Sheffield, to uncover the reasons behind the findings of this study.

Dr Sirois said: ‘Public health policies aimed at improving health and reducing healthcare utilisation tend to focus mainly on poor lifestyle and health behaviours, but social connection factors such as loneliness receive much less attention.’

’Our findings put the spotlight on the impact that loneliness can have on healthcare utilisation, and suggest that addressing the issue of loneliness at both the societal and the community levels could improve health and reduce the use of health services.

‘When we find ways to reduce loneliness, we improve the physical and mental health of people in society, and reduce the costs to the NHS.’

This article originally appeared on Univadis, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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